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The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos

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By ST Joshi

Review by Stephen Sennitt

Very few adherents of the works of HP Lovecraft and writers associated with his august name will not welcome this well-written and thought-provoking volume by the indefatigable ST Joshi.

Though not as vociferous as some of his colleagues - in particular Marc Michaud - in his condemnation of exponents of magick and the occult, such as Kenneth Grant, and their 'appropriation' of Lovecraftian/Cthulhu Mythos concepts into their esoteric researches, Joshi has still frequently misunderstood the serious intentions of many such researchers, who see Lovecraft as having caught the specific zeitgeist of the present age, instead only referencing the cheap and shoddy gimmicks of the popular press, or even worse, listening half-heartedly to the histrionics of self-styled 'black magicians' asininely spouting on about having a rare copy of 'the real Necronomicon', etc., etc.

Ironically, this has created the same sense of misunderstanding as Joshi and his colleagues have themselves faced in their dogged pursuit to get Lovecraft properly understood and accepted as a major literary figure. I'm referring to August Derleth's perceived misinterpretation of Lovecraft's central concepts, and his misappropriation of Lovecraft's legacy. If literary critics had displayed the same lack of interest and attention to Joshi and his cohorts regarding 'The Derleth Mythos' as Joshi and his cohorts have paid to genuine occultists, such as members of the Typhonian Order, The Order of Nine Angles or the Esoteric Order Of Dagon, they would still be in the position of having to explain the vast differences between Lovecraft and Derleth, and still be covering elementary ground as to who really authored 'The Peabody Heritage' and the ilk.

Fortunately for Joshi and co., the Literary Establishment has been much more attentive towards them than Joshi and co. are prepared to be towards genuine occultists and exponents of magick.

Joshi's otherwise penetrating critical acumen goes out of the window when it comes to the subjects of magick and the occult. It is an area that he has an unwillingness to engage in constructively, because as an avowed atheist he seems to dismiss/misidentify such subjects as 'religious', or as a product of religiously minded belief.

One can, of course, have some sympathy with him. His position must seem to him similar to the majority of rationalist vs. 'irrational' causes with a vested interest, in which there is always ever-present the very reasonable fear that all one's good sense and clear thinking (in this case, Joshi's sterling work towards getting Lovecraft's name recognized by the Literary Establishment) will be submerged by the usual tide of stupidity and irrationality commonly evinced by the undiscerning, 'unthinking masses'.

The only problem with this view is the erroneous presumption that the 'heretical' challenge which the orthodox Lovecraft scholars face from the likes of the Typhonian Order is 'irrational' or the product of 'unthinking' processes - in fact, at its vanguard, the occult/magickal school of Lovecraftian research is neither religiously minded nor a product of mass popular culture, and is therefore vitally different from the 'enemy' Joshi and co. think they have identified in it.

These remarks aside, there is still much good fruit to yield for the magician/occultist in Joshi's penetrating analysis of Lovecraft's key concepts, and especially in his critical appraisal of Lovecraft's innovations in the field of weird fiction, indicating why he both defines and transcends the genre at once, making Lovecraft the unique figure he is in twentieth century letters - and something of a vizier in terms of his tapping into the aforementioned zeitgeist of the present age.

With unfortunate and ill-considered snobbery (which ends up backfiring on him somewhat) Joshi also points out that while Lovecraft's work has now, through pre-eminently his own efforts, received acknowledgement from the vaunted Literary Establishment - citing Joshi's own three-volume Penguin Classics volumes and the prestigious Library of America volume (introduced, incidentally, by Peter Straub, whose 'Lovecraftian' novel, Mr. X, Joshi expresses some withering scorn towards in Rise & Fall) - in stark contrast, nearly all Cthulhu Mythos spin-offs are the products of 'small press' outfits, such as Chaosium, and print-on demand publishers, suggesting that Lovecraft's sheer comparative quality has won-over a now vast, popular, readership through respected, mainstream, publishing houses; while the readership of his inferior imitators has rightfully dwindled to languish in these aforementioned cul-de-sacs.

There is some disingenuousness in this argument, as later on in the book Joshi comments on Stephen King's mainstream popularity and accessibility as being no indication of the intrinsic worth of his prose; 'quite the reverse, in fact'(page 70).

In addition, surely it cannot have escaped notice that the majority of Joshi's own work has been published by these same small presses? In fact, Rise and Fall itself is a semi-professional, print-on-demand effort; merely an offshoot of second hand book dealer, Mythos Books! To be frank, I don't like Joshi's simplistic line of reasoning here (Penguin Books = 'good'; Chaosium = 'bad') and feel that it does his status as an able critic of weird fiction no favours at all.

Further to this point, while I would be hard-pressed to find much fault in Joshi's scholarly observations and references regarding Lovecraft's life and works (not having devoted the same time gathering and sifting data, or honing my critique to anywhere near the same extent) I am a left with some misgivings in respect to one or two errors he makes in areas I do know something about…

Off the top of my head, two in particular spring to mind: Joshi cites Fritz Leiber's 1950 tale 'The Dead Man' as uncollected, when in fact it appears in Leiber's Shadows With Eyes, Ballantine, 1962. He also seems unaware that Leiber's 'A Bit Of The Dark World' also made its first book appearance in this volume.

Whilst Leiber is an author Joshi clearly admires, the same cannot be said of Hugh B. Cave, whom he lambasts. He is, however, fair to Cave in terms of equal inaccuracy regarding the author's works: a propos Cave's admittedly lurid and ridiculous tale, 'The Isle Of Dark Magic', he writes:

'This rambling and long-winded tale would by now have been forgotten if not for its Lovecraftian references - indeed, it apparently has been forgotten [sic], for not even the diligent efforts of Robert M. Price have caused it to be reprinted…[since its appearance in Weird Tales, August, 1934…] (page 170).

Anybody who purports to have a wide knowledge of weird fiction, and especially someone with Joshi's critical cache, should have realized that this tale was actually reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner's Carcosa Press' World Fantasy Award winning 1977 volume by Cave, Murgunstrumm And Others. In fact this volume is still in print, but presumably because it is published by one of those print-on-demand, small press outfits, it is beneath Joshi's cultural radar…

These caveats aside, Rise and Fall is a compelling read which makes a brilliant case for the acceptance of Lovecraft's tales as a real and lasting source of philosophical speculation - and even some of the Cthulhu Mythos tales inspired by him!

In accepting the latter case, ST Joshi must be congratulated for widening his perspective where Lovecraft and his work is concerned, thus producing a wider-sweeping and more broadly relevant study than any of his commendable, scholarly, but narrower-in-scope, previous works.

The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos
By ST Joshi
Mythos Books, 2008, 323 pps, Hardback in Dustjacket illustration by Jason Eckhardt, $40

cthulhu  , lovecraft  , stephen sennitt  , stephen king  , pulps  , peter straub  , occult  , stephen king
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